Cosmic Buddha. Source: Smithsonian Digitization Program Office
Cosmic Buddha. Source: Smithsonian Digitization Program Office

The Smithsonian Institution, a group of museums and research centers administered by the United States government, has started 3D scanning its artifacts so that users can explore three dimensional models of the relics. These 3D models can also be 3D printed to allow students, teachers, curiosity-seekers, and everyone in between to hold these ancient artifacts in their hand. Examining the 3D model allows users to see details that would be missed even when seeing the object in the museum.

“The Smithsonian is a leader in using 3-D technology to make museum collections and scientific specimens more widely available for anyone to use and study,” said Günter Waibel, the director of the Institution’s Digitization Program Office. “The Smithsonian X 3D explorer and the initial objects we scanned are the first step in showing how this technology will transform the work of the Smithsonian and other museums and research institutions.”

The Smithsonian has partnered with 3D software developer Autodesk to create the Smithsonian X 3D Explorer. The Explorer allows users to rotate, measure, and adjust color and lighting of the artifacts. One neat feature is the storytelling option that allows curators and educators to create guided tours of the object. The 3D models are downloadable for personal and noncommercial use and can be used by teachers in the classrooms as tools.

“We’re honored to have played a role in preserving such invaluable pieces of history and humanity,” said Amar Hanspal, senior vice president at Autodesk. “We hope that exploring these priceless artifacts, heirlooms, fossils and scientific specimens in 3-D will generate more public excitement around science and technology—especially among students.”

3D Systems is also working with the Smithsonian to scan, design and print objects from a number of Smithsonian museums.

“3D Systems is proud to be a lead sponsor of the Smithsonian’s digitization efforts,” said Ping Fu, vice president and chief strategy officer of 3D Systems. “We bring to Smithsonian X 3D the new form of actual and virtual exhibits by 3-D scanning and printing, and the power of Geomagic Solutions software to process terabytes of data. The technology contributed and showcased by 3D Systems is an illustration of our vision to manufacture the future, to preserve the past and to share our collective memories and our national treasures.”

Other sponsors of the Smithsonian’s digitization program include Direct Dimensions Inc., FARO Technologies Inc., 3D Systems Geomagic, API Services and Interactive Institute Swedish ICT. 

We asked Adam Metallo, a 3D imaging specialist at the Smithsonian, some questions about the 3D Explorer project:

This is an impressive project that will likely take lifetimes to complete. How does the Smithsonian prioritize which items will be scanned?

For this pilot project, we focused on objects in which the technology could help us learn new things or to tell a story in new ways. Instead of using technology for technology’s sake, we wanted to make sure that our efforts enhanced the work that we are already doing.

Will there be scans of objects in every collection?

No. The Smithsonian has 137 million objects and digitizing all of them in 3-D would be impossible. We want to focus on objects and research that will be enhanced by this technology and present unique learning experiences

Is the Smithsonian scanning each new acquisition from here on out?


How will this impact education and the future of the Smithsonian?

We receive 30 million visits to our museums each year, but with technology like this we can reach billions. As 3-D printing becomes ever more accessible, we envision schools being able to print out replicas of our objects and use them in the classroom to teach everything from U.S. history to paleontology to astronomy.

What have these sponsors have contributed to the project: Direct Dimensions Inc., FARO Technologies Inc., 3D Systems Geomagic, API Services and Interactive Institute Swedish ICT?

They provided in kind donations through work such as scanning, post processing, equipment and printing services. Autodesk built the 3D explorer, which uses WebGL technology that allows users to interact with the content without having to download any software plugins.

What is the overall goal that the Smithsonian hopes to achieve with this project?

We want to make our collections and research available to everyone.

The Future of the Smithsonian Explorer 3D

Metallo’s answers show that with the help of 3D scanning and printing, the Smithsonian is well on its way to make learning accessible, fun, and interactive for students, teachers, and people who just want to learn more. We look forward to seeing more scans and discoveries from the Smithsonian.

Explore Smithsonian X 3D